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What to Know
Mental health literacy is having knowledge and understanding of mental health as well as skills that help people reach out for support when they need it. Mental health literacy means:
- Knowing how to develop and maintain good mental health.
- Reducing stigma (negative attitudes and beliefs) about mental distress and mental illness.
- Being aware of common mental health disorders and how they can be treated.
- Knowing how to get help for mental health concerns.
What Can Schools Do?
Description of Approach
Schools can teach about mental health in core classes or include mental health in the overall school health education program.
Lessons are most helpful when they are interactive and help students practice skills. They might include personal stories from young people about their mental health journeys. Lessons might also have in-class group activities and homework assignments. The goal is to increase mental health literacy by:
- Teaching about mental health, emotional distress, and the causes and symptoms of mental illnesses.
- Describing stigma about mental illness and explaining how to reduce it.
- Emphasizing that mental illnesses are treatable.
- Discussing reasons why people do not ask for help.
- Encouraging students to talk with trusted adults and seek support when they have a mental health concern.
Summary of Evidence
Teaching mental health lessons in school can reduce stigma and improve students’ knowledge and attitudes about mental health. Students are also more likely to ask for help.
- NAMI Ending the Silence
- Adolescent Depression Awareness Program
- Eliminating the Stigma of Differences
Description of Approach
Peer-led modeling programs train teen leaders to model positive attitudes, skills, and behaviors. Peer leaders learn about healthy coping strategies they can use and teach to their peers. These include:
- Participating in healthy activities.
- Having friends who help others.
- Finding and using medical and mental health resources.
- Talking to trusted adults.
Peer leaders share their own stories with other students. They explain how they got help and learned to cope with difficult feelings and situations. Peer leaders can also encourage students to find adults they can trust and can talk to if they need help or are worried about a friend.
Summary of Evidence
Peer-led modeling programs can help improve students’ coping skills and increase their understanding of how to get help for mental health concerns.
Focus on Equity
- Think about ways to make mental health support more available by partnering with local, state, and regional organizations and community-based groups. For example, find organizations with experience supporting diverse student populations and mental health providers who reflect the demographics of the students in your school.
- Consider how parents, caregivers, and community members view mental health and how these views might affect students’ ability to find or ask for mental health support. For example, include information about mental health in school newsletters and emails to connect mental health to academics and normalize information about mental health. Provide information to parents and caregivers using multiple formats (email, paper flyers, workshops, and guest speakers).
Support from school administrators is critical for implementing programs, practices, and policies to address mental health literacy. Specifically, leaders can:
- Identify ways to let teachers and staff know that they understand and support the need for programs, practices, and policies to increase mental health literacy.
- Create consistent guidelines and practices to support any type of mental health training, including mental health literacy training. For example, make sure that school staff know how to support students in distress, how to get help when a student has an immediate need for support, and how to communicate concerns to families.
- CDC’s Health Education Curriculum Analysis Tool provides guidance and tools to help schools select or develop quality health education curricula that supports behavioral and mental health across grade levels.
- The National Institute of Mental Health’s Resources for Students and Educators offer learning resources for students and teachers about mental health and the brain.
Want to Learn More?
For more details on increasing students’ mental health literacy, see Strategies for Promoting Mental Health and Well-Being in Schools: An Action Guide for School Administrators [PDF – 3 MB]
- Increase Students’ Mental Health Literacy
- Promote Mindfulness
- Promote Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Learning
- Enhance Connectedness Among Students, Staff, and Families
- Provide Psychosocial Skills Training and Cognitive Behavioral Interventions